“Could you boys maybe bring in a little more snow on your boots? It wouldn’t take much and we can build a snowman right here in the kitchen.”
“Aw Dovie,” all three tired boys complained.
They complained even louder when I told them, “Clean it up if you want dinner, I mean it. This is a house, not a barn and I am not your slave. And don’t touch anything but the broom and dustpan with those dirty hands, especially not the walls or the laundry hanging in the living room.”
In the end they rolled their eyes but did as I told them. Honest to Pete if it isn’t one thing it is another. Fifteen minutes later Jude started to do the same thing until I growled and looked at his feet. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry about that Sweetheart.”
I hid my red face by turning back to the stove when all the kids laughed at Jude calling me “sweetheart.” Jude ignored the kids for the most part but he did grin and wink when he caught my eye which only made me blush all over again.
“Brought you something,” he said as he came over to my side near the stove.
“It better not be a snake,” I told him eyeing his hidden hands that were shoved in his pockets.
He laughed softly. “Now would I do that?”
With absolute conviction I answered, “In a heartbeat.”
Of course that caused another soft laugh. “Come down to the basement for a sec.”
I rolled my eyes thinking the obvious but willingly moved the coffee pot off of the burner and followed him down the stairs. He stopped me at the bottom and motioned me to help him to slide the storage cabinet that sat in front of the tunnel out of the way. Then he clicked the solar lamp on and I followed him through the narrow opening. He walked to the last “room” – the one I thought of as a holding cell or small bedroom but now converted to storage space – and then finally turned to me. Quietly he whispered, “Don’t go spreading this around … that you have them or where they came from.”
I was immediately suspicious of course and I wasn’t sure at all what to expect. I certainly wasn’t thinking of what he started pulling out of his pockets.
“Are those little bags full of what I think they are full of?!”
“Shhh. Yeah. Garden seeds. Heirloom seeds to be more precise.”
“Don’t ask Dovie. I don’t want to lie to you … and won’t, but I can’t tell you everything ‘cause it involves too many people.”
Acknowledging that he probably knew better than I did I still said, “I’m not asking for all the details. I’m not even asking for any details per se. Just give me something Jude. I don’t think you’re stealing, in fact I’d be willing to bet my life on it, but you are certainly up to something.”
“It’s not stealing … at least not literally. I’m just … uh … circumventing things a bit.”
“Circumventing? That sounds a whole lot like you are running ‘shine.”
He chuckled at the idea for a moment before he realized it actually wasn’t funny. “No Dovie. I already told you. I know my limits. There are some folks that are bringing back the old ways and making a living at it but … but I can’t. At least not that. I know that not everyone that drinks is a drunk like I was but since I can’t tell the difference I ain’t playing bartender.”
“Well, you’re ‘running’ something … and even if you ain’t ‘running’ it is something that is a close kin to it.”
He watched me gently handle the two dozen small bags and about as many old pill bottles that he had pulled out of his inside coat pockets, all of which were labeled with what they contained. “They’re honest pay for honest work Dovie.”
I turned and looked at him in the lamp light. “I know Jude. I’ve told you I don’t know how many times that I trust you. I just wish you trusted me enough to be upfront about it. You are putting yourself on the line by doing something. In your eyes you are protecting me – and the kids – by keeping it to yourself or you wouldn’t be so secretive about it.”
“I do trust you … but you’re right that there are things you don’t need to know about this.”
“Don’t need to know or that you just don’t want me involved in? Is it like …” I hesitated for a moment before continuing. “Is it like what Dad used to do? And don’t tell me you don’t have a good guess because you ain’t stupid and you heard Mom and Uncle Roe go at it every once in a while and what Uncle Roe thought of Dad’s job.”
“Dovie, your dad was just an air traffic controller.”
“Get rid of that ‘just’ you said and you’ll have it more right than wrong.”
He looked at me quietly, not denying that he knew what I was talking about. “Your dad told you?”
“No but then again I ain’t stupid either. All I had to do was put together two and two. The places he was sent, when he was sent there, the people that sometimes came around the house to see Dad at odd hours, the fact that he didn’t like us living on base where we’d hear things. Dad was closed mouth but some other people weren’t. I heard things growing up. The fact that he didn’t talk about his job was a big a red flag as anything else. I know how to live without details Jude. It would just be nice to know how to pray when I ask God to look out after you.”
“You do that? Pray for me?”
“Oh.” He tilted his head and I could almost hear his brain buzzing with his thoughts. Finally he said, “Dovie …” He stopped and then started again. “Look. It isn’t illegal … well not per se I guess … but people could get into trouble if a hint of things gets out. There’s … there’s a … a network I guess you could call it. We … we share information with each other … do things for each other … or maybe find people that can do what needs doing. We operate … er … outside of … of official channels ‘cause we want to and because it makes things easier on us. We don’t want to hurt anyone we just want to make things better for ourselves and our families … and by making things better for ourselves we hope to make them better for those we interact with outside the network too. But there’s a lot of people that seem to want to have a say in who does better and who doesn’t. Just about everything is regulated except for the air we breathe and the water we drink and they are coming close to figuring out a good solid way to pull that off too. Our … let’s keep calling it a network. Our network thinks things are being regulated that shouldn’t be regulated, that there is no legal standing to have it regulated, at least not when you are talking inside state boundaries. You’ve heard the stories. People are going out of business because they can’t pay what amounts to an import/export fee just to take things through the checkpoints. They tell us how much we can buy, how much we can sell, who can do the buying, and what we’ll pay for it all … and then they add tax on top of it. You have to have a different kind of license and eleventy dozen different permits to get anything done anymore. Some licensing and some permitting is understandable but we’re getting buried under an avalanche of fees and paperwork so that only union people who work under the umbrella of their local chapter can stay in business … and some of them ain’t too happy neither as they get it coming and going themselves because to be a union member you have to pay dues that just about wipe out what you gain by being a member.”
He stopped to draw breath and I tried to keep straight what he was telling me. “Are … are you black market?”
He shook his head. “No, but we occasionally do business with them. Have to be careful though because you don’t know what kind of information they might be gathering up and who they might be selling it to. I ain’t bringing that kind of trouble home and even Rochelle isn’t as brazen as she used to be. She’ll tell folks what they need as far as medicine but she won’t go find it for them like she used to.” He sighed. “Let’s just say that we’re a group … a network … of folks that are trying to help each other out under the radar so to speak. When we barter we don’t keep track of it to report to the tax man. We go to each other first when there’s a job to do rather than watch that job … and the pay involved … go to an outsider. Our biggest commodity is information. How that information is obtained is what could maybe get people in some serious trouble. And sometimes we … uh … we move things around a bit.”
“Move things around,” I repeated. Giving a thought I asked, “Things … or people?”
Carefully he said, “Possibly both. But assuming that is going on we’d be real careful about what or who.”
“Assuming it’s going on,” I repeated sarcastically. Before he could get upset I patted his arm and said softly, “Ok, I get it. Maybe what you’re doing is something like Dad’s job and maybe it isn’t. Regardless I don’t want to see you hurt so you just be careful. And don’t go taking chances doing stuff ‘cause you think we might need them. I love the seeds but I don’t love ‘em enough to value them above your safety.”
He took me in his arms and whispered huskily, “I’d give a whole lot to be able to spend some time with you right now.” As he gave me chills on my neck from where his words vibrated against my skin he added, “But that ain’t happening I suppose, not with all your lambs upstairs waiting to eat. And I got to be out for a while tonight too. You … er … you might hear me moving around in the attic but you don’t need to come up and help or worry about it.”
That brought me back down to earth. “Well, if you are going to be fooling around up there tonight I guess I’ll hang the blackout curtains back up on the dormer windows before I go to sleep. You can put that old chifferobe on sliders – I’ll leave them where you can find them – and push it in front of that piece of wall too.”
He just blinked at me before nodding. We headed back upstairs to find that Tiffany was trying to convince everyone that their backbone wasn’t going to rub a hole in their belly. While Jude went off to clean up – I heard him grunt in surprise when he realized there was one more clothes line to duck under than he had expected – I plated up supper for the kids.
Supper was a brief affair. Everyone enjoyed the meal but we were all tired as well from working in the cold all day. The boys went off to bed the same time I put Corey down who was half past cranky from being outside most of the morning and a good piece of the afternoon. Tiff and Mimi followed as soon as they helped me put the last dish and utensil away in their proper place. I brought the last of the pot of acorn “coffee” to Jude and found him half asleep on the sofa contemplating a line of damp underclothes and long johns causing crazy shadows as they hung in the firelight.
“I don’t see your things hanging around here,” he said trying to get a rise out of me.
I humphed softly. “You don’t need any more distractions than you’ve already got out of me Jude Killarney. I like to at least pretend I am a lady when I get the chance.”
He patted the cushion beside him, wordlessly asking me to sit down. He sighed and stretched out a little and laid his head on my shoulder. “Lordy I’m tired.”
I chuckled and asked, “Do I look like a pillow to you?”
“Nope, but you’ve got cushion in the right spots. Every time I move on this sofa I swear I find a new spring or a hole where there shouldn’t be one.”
Thinking back on a recent worry I said, “This thing is older than I am … heck, it is older than Jack and Jay are … were I mean. It is going downhill fast. I don’t think it was ever designed for a large family to use on a constant basis.”
“If I can fix the springs and frame you think you could do something about the cushy parts?”
“Maybe … probably. I’ve got several rag bags full of material scraps and old, un-repairable clothes. It might be a little lumpy but I’d give it a go. Or we might just have to bring the futon up from out of the basement though I hate the thought of lugging that blasted frame and big ol’ mattress thingie up those narrow stairs. It took Mom and I forever to get it down there in the first place without killing ourselves.”
“Oh … you mean you brought it with you with your stuff from Florida?”
“Yeah,” I said thinking back.
Noticing the expression on my face he brushed my cheek with his finger. “Didn’t mean to make you sad.”
“You didn’t. Some things are just going to hurt for a while no matter what … I’ve learned to deal with it.” Shaking off my abrupt melancholy I pushed him off and then stood up.
Startled he asked, “Hey, are you mad?”
“Huh? No, I told you that. I’m just going to go make some more coffee for you to take in a thermos before the stove cools off too much to get going again. It’s cold as blue blazes outside. Or do you want cider or something like that?”
He looked at me quizzically for a moment before nodding. “Got any of that rose hip tea you can make?”
“Uh huh. I’ll put honey in it to sweeten it up for you. Last time you took a sip out of my mug before I could warn you your face nearly turned inside out.”
At my chuckle he nodded, “How on earth you can drink that stuff without sweetening I don’t know. It’s like lemonade without sugar. It nearly permanently locked my jaws.”
I shrugged. “You can get used to just about anything.”
“You saying you’re doing without?” he asked suspiciously.
“I’m saying that I don’t need sweetening in everything … or milk. If we had more I’d use more, but we don’t, so there it is. And get that look off your face Jude. We needed those seeds … the other stuff is not a need but a luxury so don’t go figuring a way to get it and work yourself into the ground or worse, into trouble. I’m old enough to know the difference between a need and a luxury I’ll have you know.”
Jude relaxed. “Sweetheart, age hasn’t got anything to do with it. When I was working in town at the expansion I ran into people twice my age and more that still hadn’t got that figured out.” He sighed a bit regretfully. “Wish I’d had more sense when it would have done some good.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean if I’d had my head on straight from the beginning I’d have been able to provide you with chickens and maybe some goats even if I couldn’t have managed a cow and calf. I’d have a smokehouse full of meat and a silo of grain and you wouldn’t have to pinch every little thing to make it go far enough. I must have spent two fortunes on all the swill I drank up.”
I shook my head. “One, you could never have guessed we would be coming back or that I’d be bringing the Brady Bunch with me. Two, if you had had those things when we got here some other girl would have already had you all tied up and promised to her. Three, you did provide us with a smokehouse full of meat and you have the scar on your leg to prove it if you need reminding … and fed those down at the main house on top of it. Four, we are still working on the grain you got back during harvest season. Want me to keep going?”
“Would if my head wasn’t already swelling so bad my hat ain’t gonna fit.” Then he stood up and kissed me hard and fast. “Go on, fix that tea if you mean to. I’m gonna change and then get out and try and get back soon enough that I can get a couple of hours of sleep before I have to go back out to work; though, if there’s more than a foot of snow on the ground we were told to not get there till ten o’clock since they’d have their own extra chores to deal with.”
As I made Jude’s tea I shook my head over that fact that people always thought farmers did nothing all winter long but sit around waiting for spring to arrive. I can just remember Dad’s father – his grandchildren including me called him Daddo Red – laughing after hearing someone say it and turning to Dad and saying, “Shows what they know. Why do you think I encouraged you boys to seek your own fortune rather than riding on my coattails? Farming is a hard life and make no mistake about it.”
Dad’s mother had died when he was a baby and as his brothers were all several years older than him. He’d been raised off and on by his grandmother and her sisters all of whom had also died by the time he was thirteen. Mom said it was a wonder that Dad survived his childhood the way he’d gotten passed around but Dad always said that just because it was a different childhood from hers didn’t mean it was a bad one.
For the first time since Idaho I wondered what had happened to all my cousins – most of whom were older than Jack and Jay. Had they survived the pandemic? Probably if they had the same genes that Paulie and I had, at least some of Uncle James’ kids should have though they were spread all over the place from Texas to Oregon. Had they survived the violence that came along with the sickness? Or the other terrorist actions that our country had been subjected to? As for the families of Uncle Cillian, Uncle Donal, Uncle Grady, Uncle Brennan and Uncle Bran (they are twins), and Uncle Eamon I had no clue at all. Uncle James was the oldest and Dad was the youngest of that family full of boys.
Uncle Eamon was the nearest to Dad in age but they had never been close. Unfortunately he was also the only one that still lived in this general area; on a hunting tract of 200 acres over in Indian Mound. I suppose I should ask Uncle Roe if he’s heard anything; Uncle Eamon was fairly well to do as his business was being a hunting guide for people with enough money they could afford to hire him to help them bag a trophy deer for their man cave wall.
After Daddo Red died Dad hadn’t made a habit of trying to keep up with anyone but Uncle James. Uncle Cillian was some kind of graphic designer and his wife was nice but a bit of a scatterbrain if the adult conversations I had overheard were truthful. They had a couple of boys that turned out to be artists too but apparently not the kind that got paid very regular for it. And Uncle Donal and his wife had only had the one son who, again according to conversations I should not have been listening to, was a quote unquote “crap head.” Their grandson was no better and the court gave them guardianship of their great grandson if what I overheard at the big memorial service had been true. Uncle Grady had been killed in one of the Gulf wars, I forget which one as it was well before I was born, but he’d had a son that had lived with Uncle James while he went to college when they still lived in Phoenix. Uncles B & B were still inseparable the last time I saw them which was also at the triple memorial service. When I was little they would show up on our doorstep ever so often but usually only when Dad was out of town; they liked to mess around with Jack and Jay but they weren’t the most stable influence if you catch my drift. They’d both been married and divorced a few times and had kids spread out all over kingdom come if their tall tales had any basis in fact, and not all of them were legitimate.
Mom had always sent birthday cards and holiday cards to whatever the last address she had for all the family members but return ones were always hit or miss. We surely got enough wedding invitations, baby announcements and graduation notices though. Dad used to call it familial solicitation and that it should be outlawed; Mom used to give Dad the eye for saying it and would make a little gift and send it anyway. She’d say, “Alroy, it’s the thought that counts.” He say, “Then try not and think so much, you can bet they aren’t thinking about any of our kids.”
I don’t suppose it particularly bothers me that Dad’s side of the family is the way it is since there isn’t a thing I can do about it but at the same time, now that I’ve thought about it, it would be nice to know for sure one way or the other how things have turned out for them. I wonder if any of them have ever thought about Paulie and me? Makes me wonder if any of my kids have relatives searching for them and if so, what am I going to do about it if they somehow find them and want them back?